By Adam Isacson, Director for Defense Oversight, Washington Office on Latin America
Petro, Santos and Uribe in the Trump Campaign
As though the Cold War never ended, Donald Trump has accused Joe Biden of being a “communist” during the election campaign.
The accusation is ridiculous: Biden is part of the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; in 2000 the human rights community criticized him for vigorously supporting the military component of Plan Colombia. And of course Biden is strongly opposed to Nicolas Maduro.
But we know that Trump doesn’t care about the truth. On October 10 he tweeted, “Joe Biden is a PUPPET of CASTRO-CHAVISTAS (…) Biden is supported by socialist Gustavo Petro, a major LOSER and former M-19 guerrilla leader. Biden is weak on socialism and will betray Colombia.”
That same day, the president-candidate congratulated Alvaro Uribe upon being freed from his house arrest and said that he was “an ally of our Country in the fight against CASTRO-CHAVISMO!”
In an October 12 speech in Florida, Trump said: “My opponent stands with socialists and communists.… The last administration also negotiated the terrible Obama-Biden Santos deal with Colombian drug cartels. They surrendered to the narco-terrorists. They surrendered, totally gave up to them, and that caused illicit drugs all over this country. Joe Biden even received the endorsement of Colombian socialist Gustavo Petro, a former member of the M19 Guerrilla organization. And he took it, because you know why? he didn’t know who the hell it was. He said, ‘I’ll take it. I’ll take whoever. And they said, no, he’s a bad guy, Joe. He’s actually a bad guy.’”
During his campaign, Trump has released Spanish-language videos targeting the Hispanic community:
- A Spanish-language video from his campaign entitled “Castrochavismo,” repeating what he said in his speech.
- In another video from August, Mercedes Schlapp thanks Gustavo Petro for making it clear that he supports Biden. Schalapp is a right-wing activist from a Florida Cuban-American family. Her husband heads the American Conservative Union, one of the country’s leading far-right think tanks.
The Latino vote in Florida, a decisive vote
Why does Trump use the word “Castrochavismo,” invented in Colombia by Uribismo? The answer is: Florida.
In the semi-democratic U.S. system, a candidate can be president even if he doesn’t have a majority of votes, if he wins a majority of states—as Trump did in 2016 and Bush did in 2000. It takes 270 electoral votes to be elected, and Florida represents 11% of that number.
Trump has no chance of being re-elected on November 3 if he does not win the state of Florida and its 29 electoral votes.
For Trump, the polls show a possible humiliating defeat due to his failed response to COVID-19 and a host of political and personal offenses. That’s why Joe Biden has a national lead of more than 10 percentage points. In Florida, a somewhat more Republican-leaning state than average, Biden has a smaller lead of 3 or 4 points.
Florida, in turn, is a state where elections are often very close, so the vote of the Latino community—approximately 2.4 million voters—is a really decisive factor.
Biden has an important, but not huge, advantage in the Latino community: 54% to 43%, according to a survey released by St. Pete Polls on October 12, which gave Biden a 49-47 advantage among all voters in the state.
To win in Florida, Trump has to decrease the number of Latinos voting for Biden. And this is not impossible: Even though Biden has a two-to-one margin in national polls of Latino voters, that population in Florida tends to be more to the right.
The Colombian Right in Florida
In Florida, Cuban Americans are the largest ethnic group of Latino voters, followed by Puerto Ricans, Mexicans and, in fourth place, Colombians. The Venezuelan community is also growing rapidly.
Unlike Puerto Ricans and Mexicans, Cubans, Colombians, and Venezuelans are more likely to have upper-middle class origins. To emigrate, they generally had enough money to pay for a plane ticket and hire an immigration attorney. Many fled from leftist regimes, like Cubans, Nicaraguans, and Venezuelans. Others, like the Colombians, fled kidnapping, extortion, and insecurity during the FARC’s zenith.
Many members of that population are frightened off by any odor of communism or socialism. Their right-wing views are strengthening thanks to Miami radio programs, extremist publications inserted into newspapers, and messages or memes shared on Facebook, WhatsApp and other social networks.
The results of the 2018 Colombian elections and the 2016 plebiscite show a trend toward uribismo among Colombians in the United States who are eligible to vote in Colombia. In the United States, Duque won the first round in 2018 with 71% of votes, and the second round with 85%, while “No” won the 2016 plebiscite with 62%.
The Colombian community in the United States sometimes supports Democratic candidates, but has an affinity with the Centro Democrático party. That is why Trump’s campaign uses the label “Castro-Chavismo” and accuses Biden of being a communist.
Uribe behind the scenes
Journalist Tim Padgett has investigated this direct connection between the Centro Democrático and the Trump campaign: how else would Trump know about the existence of Gustavo Petro, an “Obama-Biden-Santos pact,” or the word “Castro-chavista”?
Padgett says that the key moment was a dinner for Alvaro Uribe with Senator Marco Rubio and House member Mario Diaz-Balart, both legislators from the Cuban-American Republican right. According to Juan Pablo Salas, a Colombian analyst, “Before Alvaro Uribe came to Miami in 2016, nobody would have attempted to accuse Joe Biden of being a communist. Now it’s not only possible, it’s having success….. Alvaro Uribe really moved the ball.”
Although it is not clear who has transmitted Uribe’s messages from Colombia to Florida, it seems that Schlapp, Democratic Center Senator Maria Fernanda Cabal, and Juan David Velez, the congressional representative for Colombians abroad, are key figures.
Response and consequences
Biden’s supporters in Florida’s Colombian and Venezuelan communities have tried to counter the Republican attacks. They have endured abuses in social media and in their communities, but insist that Trump’s authoritarianism is tantamount to what made them flee their home countries.
We will see in November if that argument proves effective and convincing. Meanwhile, Biden continues to do well in the polls.
If Biden wins, relations between Colombia and the United States will remain close and cordial. Washington has invested heavily in maintaining this bilateral relationship in a region of strategic importance. But some members of Biden’s team, who have complained of Uribe’s interference in the campaign against him, would likely loosen ties between the two countries.
While the U.S.-Colombia relationship would remain close, the relationship between Biden and Duque and the Centro Democrático would be distant. Juan Gonzalez, an advisor to Biden, says, “I actually think that relationship between President Obama and President Uribe was sometimes complicated.” The same could happen between Biden and Duque.
An example of this “cordial but distant” tone was seen in June 2009, when President Uribe visited Washington. When Uribe and Obama received journalists in the Oval Office, Colombian journalist Natalia Orozco asked both of them about Uribe’s ambition for a second re-election. Obama said that while it was an internal Colombian issue, “We know that our experience in the United States is that two terms works for us and that after eight years, usually the American people want a change.” Obama hit Uribe’s aspirations hard.
That willingness to stay distant from the Centro Democrático, and even to damage its agenda, may be characteristic of a Biden administration.
Although Biden has a high probability of winning, what might happen with the Colombian-American vote in Florida is uncertain. In that state, the outcome will be a major test of whether uribismo’s cold-war throwback strategy of “Castro-chavismo” can be exported to other contexts. And therefore, whether it might be replicated in Colombia’s own 2022 presidential elections.